Govt gagging pre-election protests, say lawyers

ASEAN+ April 10, 2015 16:17

By Myanmar Eleven

Legal experts and political activists have criticised the sentencing of democracy activists to between three and six months in prison, claiming the jail terms are politically motivated.

Before 2015, those charged under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which is used to take action on demonstrators who protest without permission, were mostly given one month sentences or fines. But this year has seen sentences of three to six months being handed out. 
It is seen as an attempt to stifle protest ahead of November’s general election by commentators who say the judiciary is coming under political pressure to stiffen sentences.
"It’s not good to give three- to four-month sentences to peaceful demonstrators. It is an abuse of human rights. The government is pressurising political activists as the 2015 election draws near. It is a bad sign," said lawyer Robert San Aung.
The 2008 Constitution says: "Every citizen shall be at liberty … to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions, assemble peacefully without arms … and to form associations and organisations."
Robert San Aung said the judiciary was influenced by the administration and judges had no freedom to sentence on cases. It was essential to have an independent judiciary, he said. 
Prosecutions under Section 18 include Thein Aung Myint and four others who protested over increased electricity charges in Mandalay. They received up to six-month terms on March 23.
Soe Wai, from Thandwe Township in Rakhine State, was given a three-month sentence on March 26 for accusing the military of grabbing land on Ngapali beach.
Lawyer Myint Aye and activist Myo Thu Htut from Pyi, Bago Region, were handed four-month terms and hard labour under Section 18 on April 2 for demanding that the student union was rebuilt.
Naw Ohn Hla and Than Swe, two leaders from the Letpadaungtaung clashes, were sentenced to four months on April 2 by Bahan Township court in Yangon Region.
Lawyer Thein Than Oo said: "Internationally, it is normal that when elections are due, the ruling party will jail activists from the opposition parties. Myanmar is doing the same. If you apply for a permit to protest, you may be put to prison without reason." 
Moe Thway, a democratic activist, said: "We have tried to amend and abolish Section 18. In amending, the government reduced sentences to six months in prison. So nothing significant changed. Now that the election is getting near, if the government controls activists, we can assume that the election will not be free and fair.”
There are 296 political prisoners charged with Section 18, and sections 505(b), 147 and 143 of the Penal Code, according to Thet Oo, a member of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. 
Section 143 of the Penal Code can be used to prosecute members of an unlawful assembly. Section 505(b) is used to prosecute whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with the intent to commit an offence against the state or public tranquility.